Dathan Auerbach’s Penpal, self-published in 2012 after a series of connected short stories became popular on Reddit, is an intensely eerie story in which the innocence of childhood collides with a bad man’s obsession. Bad Man revisits some of the same themes but does not achieve the same level of creepy goodness.
When Ben was a boy, he was forced to take care of his younger brother Eric. On a visit to the supermarket, Ben looked away for only a moment, but that’s all it took. His brother had vanished. Five years later, Ben continues his search and ends up taking a job at the same store as a stocker, working the night shift. Eerie clues begin to emerge that lead Ben down a rabbit hole until he learns the truth.
From the first few pages, Auerbach sets up a horrifying story: every parent’s worst nightmare, the kidnapping of a child, with understanding and closure forever being out of reach. As with Penpal, Auerbach takes his time building characters that are likeable, flawed, and realistic, and it’s easy to root for Ben and others in the story. He takes his time building plot as well, showing normal life that is slowly invaded by a corrupting influence, in this case clues Eric may still be alive. While the story is a bit long, the clues keep the reader turning pages.
Unfortunately, the story never achieves the creepiness of Penpal, one of my favorite horror stories and admittedly a very, very hard act to follow. It’s also missing some of that story’s magic, in which the expertly portrayed wonder of childhood is contrasted with a corrupting obsession. In the end, Bad Man has a big payoff in the form of a very strong dark twist, but I found it anti-cathartic and unsatisfying as Ben simply isn’t flawed enough to justify it.
Overall, however, Bad Man gets solid marks for delivering a compelling premise, personable characters, and a well-told tale. I liked it, and I’m curious what Auerbach is going to come up with next.